Wednesday, May 04, 2005

All Good Things Must Come to an End

Our calendar presently reads May 5, 2005. And despite the fact that your calendar probably reads May 4, 2005, we should all be able to agree that June 20 is not all that far away. That’s when Cliff and Amber begin the journey home. It’s been two years already, and we thought a few reflections on the past and thoughts on the future might be in order.

Cliff’s Reflections:

Two years. One hundred and four weeks. Seven hundred and thirty days. Seventeen thousand five hundred and twenty hours. A stint in Peace Corps may feel like a decade to some or like a week to others. In our case, I would say two years in Tonga felt…well…like two years. Enough time to learn a language, begin to understand another culture, and establish some relationships. Not enough time to truly change a community, make a foreign land feel like home, or forget all that was left behind. Having now completed my third two year experience since finishing college (an internship at Emmaus House recovery program, graduate school, and then Peace Corps Tonga), I will say this: nothing is exotic after two years.

Whether one is sharing a bathroom with former prostitutes and addicts or relocating to a remote South Pacific island, everything seems normal after a year or two. You get used to people showering and dancing in the rain. You get used to hurling banana peels and old leftovers toward the pigs out back. You get used to stepping over coconut husks and bananas every single day. When I spent a month in Yettebon, Ethiopia during college, the trip’s leader advised taking photographs of the mountains right away; apparently, after three or four weeks people tended to forget just how breathtaking the view truly was. Human beings have an amazing capacity to adjust their expectations, to accept as typical things they had never even imagined only moments before. In another six months, Tonga will feel like a lifetime ago and Chicago’s overpopulated streets will seem commonplace. People evolve. People adjust. People stretch. So two years of something completely new may feel like a lifetime or feel like a brief second, but I assure you it almost always feels worthwhile.

Amber’s Reflections:

Now that our countdown calendar is registering just over six weeks, I’ve started trying to reflect on the things I’ve learned while being here. There are the obvious things: how to dance Tongan style, how to speak a language spoken by only 100,000 of the world’s inhabitants, how to make a raw fish salad, how to get to the outhouse and back during a cyclone without getting soaked. But there are also a lot of intangible lessons that will serve me well outside the South Pacific. Here are a few:

  • I’ve learned how easy it is not to appreciate what you have. We see this in the Tongans as they make the awkward adjustment to a consumer-based society, and we see it in ourselves as we overlook the spectacular views available just a block from our house.
  • I’ve learned how easy it is to develop tunnel-vision, and how quickly that tunnel-vision can lead to feeling stressed. My first year and a half here was overly stressful because I couldn’t slow down enough to move at the pace of Tongan society. Cliff and I worked together to adjust that attitude, and now I’m pretty good at the Tongan malolo (restful) style.
  • I appreciate families and the support system they provide more. There are no homeless people in Tonga, no orphans, and no one goes hungry. The extended family works together to care for each other. Being away from our families has made us miss them, and watching Tongan families together has made us appreciate more all the things our own parents and grandparents have done for us.

It is impossible to condense two years of unique experiences into a few simple lessons; the few I’ve listed above barely scratch the surface of all that could be said. As we expected when we signed up for the Peace Corps, our two years of service was not easy and wasn’t always fun, but it was very good for us, and perhaps useful to the Tongans around us as well.

Up next…Around The World:

There are two main options regarding travel home. We could just fly direct from Tongatapu to Los Angeles to Chicago. Or we could travel home the other direction, stopping off in various exotic locales for fun and relaxation. Shockingly enough, we’re opting for itinerary number two. So first we’ll be meeting up with our good friend and former Chicago neighbor Aaron Clements to drive around New Zealand for a couple weeks, check out Sydney, Australia for four or five days, and then explore Bangkok, Thailand. After that, it’s off to South Africa and Mozambique to visit with Ernie and Sharon Doering, friends from Chicago who are presently serving with the Mennonite Central Committee there. Then, we’ll spend a day or so in London en route to Orlando, Florida where we’ll stay with Amber’s Grandpa for a week and visit some friends and family in the area. Finally, we’ll arrive in Springfield, Illinois to begin the long, arduous, and slightly less exciting process of resuming life in America. Here’s the present itinerary for those who are interested:

June 20 Tonga to Auckland

July 5 Auckland to Syndey

July 8 Sydney to Bangkok

July 11/12 Bangkok to Hong Kong to Johannesburg

July 20/21 Johannesburg to London

July 22 London to Orlando

July 28 Orlando to St. Louis to Springfield

Up next…In America:

After our around-the-world travels, our immediate plan is to sleep and eat well for a few days. After that, though, I’m afraid we’re going to have to settle down a bit. Cliff, who graduated from college in 1999 and has yet to have a salaried job, will start interviewing for social work positions in the Chicago area. (After, of course, he has recovered from his hip surgery.) I will return to work at World Vision, with much the same job as before. (Conveniently, the woman who took my position when I left is leaving World Vision in June, and my boss is willing to hold the job for me until mid-August.)

We hope to buy a used car shortly after returning to the Midwest and to find an apartment (possibly on the north-west or south-west sides of the city) as quickly as possible. During our time in Tonga we’ve both developed a long list of to-do items that we’re eager to tackle once we’re back in the city. These include using our new biking skills on the paths along the lake; improving our Spanish-speaking skills; publishing some of the short stories and plays we’ve written while here; and make frequent visits to movie theaters, supermarkets, the Chicago public library, and the houses of family and friends.